Remembering Nancy Wake (1912-2011): Secret Agent Extraordinaire

Nancy Wake in later lifeNancy Wake, master spy, during World War IIThe world of wartime espionage lost one of its most colorful characters early this month when Nancy Wake, just a few days shy of her 99th birthday, passed away in London.

In fact, when it comes to messing with the Germans during World War II, Nancy Grace Augusta Wake Fiocca Forward may be the ultimate pièce de resistance.

Like so many of the women who were to join the resistance movement on the European Continent, Ms. Wake fell into the role quite by accident after finding herself behind enemy lines. But the big difference with Nancy Wake wasn’t only that she survived – because a goodly number of them didn’t – but also her deadly effectiveness in the role of spy.

Nancy Wake’s early life could never have foretold living the adrenaline-rush life of a secret agent. She was a New Zealander, born in 1912 in Wellington. A few years later, her family moved to Sydney, Australia. But her journalist father soon abandoned the family, so Nancy’s early life was one of some privation in a family of six children headed by a single mother.

At the age of 16, Nancy decided to leave home, using a small inheritance from an aunt to sail for England in 1928.

Here’s where Nancy’s life begins to take on the contours of a spy thriller. First, the plucky young woman bluffs her way into a job in journalism with the Hearst newspaper chain by claiming she is fluent in “Egyptian” – never mind that no such language exists. Once ensconced into a crack news reporter position, she is sent to Paris as a correspondent.

There, Nancy becomes increasingly alarmed by the Nazi saber-rattling occurring on the other side of the Rhine River … but at the same time she meets and marries Henri Fiocca, who happens to be the wealthy heir to a shipping company based in Marseilles.

As she would later say about Mr. Fiocca in an interview with the London Daily Telegraph: “He was tall. He could dance the tango. And if you dance the tango with a nice, tall man, you know what will eventually happen …”

Just one year into the marriage, however, the German tanks rolled into France. At first, Nancy became an ambulance driver, and from there became involved in manning escape lines from her home in Marseilles as people of all stripes desperately sought safe passage to neutral Spain. Among her early exploits were hiding people on the run, giving lavish cash payoffs to guards to free prisoners, and becoming a communications courier for the French resistance.

Not surprisingly, these doings made her known to the Germans as a key figure in the resistance movement – one who needed to be neutralized at all cost. In fact, at one point she was tops on the Gestapo’s “most wanted” list. Heeding advice from her husband and friends to leave the country while she still had the opportunity, Nancy made her way back to England by way of Gibraltar.

Her husband had made plans to join her after settling his business affairs in Marseilles, but the Germans made short work of that by torturing and then killing him – presumably because he refused to divulge information about his wife’s whereabouts.

Nancy was not to learn of her husband’s fate until the end of the war. Meanwhile, her trip to England via Spain and Gibraltar was a harrowing one involving switching from coal trucks to trains and ships … evading German soldiers and bullets along the way.

But was that the end of her spying career? Hardly. Nancy spent eight months of training in the British special operations forces, then parachuted back into central France in 1944 to work as a communications liaison between London and the local Maquis resistance.

Amusingly, she would later recount how her descent into the French countryside was not particularly elegant; the local Maquis leader, Capt. Henri Tardivat, found her tangled in a tree.

The good captain greeted her by remarking, “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year.” Her tart response: “Don’t give me that French sh*t.”

It would be hard to overstate the contribution Nancy Wake made to the resistance movement in France. Not only did she take care of finances, she allocated the arms and equipment that were being parachuted and smuggled into the country. She was also responsible for recruiting many new members to the movement – so that the resistance force eventually numbered ~7,500 people.

And boy, did they ever wreak havoc on the German occupiers! It’s estimated that from April 1944 until the liberation of France, the Maquis fought ~22,000 German SS soldiers and caused ~1,400 casualties while taking fewer than 100 themselves. Nancy did her part; she was a good marksman, and even killed an SS guard with her bare hands on one of the Maquis’ many raids in order to prevent him from sounding the alarm to his fellow soldiers.

At the end of the war, Nancy Wake was all of 33 years old, yet had already lived a veritable lifetime of excitement and action. In the postwar period, she divided her time between Australia and England, becoming involved in leftish politics and also working as an intelligence officer … eventually remarrying and settling in England for good.

Her popular 1985 memoir, The White Mouse, was so titled because it had been the name the Gestapo bestowed on her for her deft ability to avoid the traps that had been set for her.

In later years, Nancy Wake became a resident of the fashionable Stafford Hotel in London’s St. James Place (Picadilly), which had served as a British and American services club during the war. In fact, its bar had been the place where Nancy had been introduced to alcohol many years before.

Evidently quite the character well into her 90s, she could be found at the hotel bar every morning, enjoying the bar’s first gin and tonic of the day. Now that’s what I call style!

Remembering Ace Fighter Pilot John Alison (1912-2011)

This past week, the world lost one of the greatest combat pilots of all time when Major General John R. ‘Johnny’ Alison died at the age of 98.

While John Alison may not be well-known to today’s public, he was quite a famous and impressive personality during the years of World War II and beyond. Although best-known for his activities in the Pacific Theaters including China-Burma-India, he also advised General Dwight Eisenhower on the use of gliders to ferry troops during the D-Day invasion of Continental Europe.

The first 35 years of General Alison’s life reads like a thriller novel. He became interested in flying during his high school years in Florida. A prodigy at flying, his first military stint was at Langley Field in Virginia in the late 1930s where he excelled at flying every form of aircraft.

Upon the outbreak of World War II, Alison was sent as a military attaché to England to support the Royal Air Force’s efforts to assemble and fly the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk aircraft that were being supplied by President Roosevelt under the Lend-Lease Act.

It was a mission he would repeat in the Soviet Union in 1941 after that country had been invaded by the Axis forces. He would later recount the frightening-yet-thrilling sensation of standing on the rooftop of the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Moscow, watching the German armies as they approached the city.

Alison was to escape the chaos of the Eastern Front by venturing through Iran to reach the port city of Basra in Iraq. From there, he ventured on to China and the Pacific campaigns in the Allies’ war with Japan.

In 1942, General Alison was tapped to be deputy commander of the 75th Flying Squadron, famous as the “Flying Tigers” whose pilots defended Chinese cities from Japanese air assaults. Commenting on his prowess in the sky, David Lee ‘Tex’ Hill, Alison’s commanding officer, would later write:

“John Alison had the greatest pure flying skill of any pilot in the theater – a touch on the controls that knew no equal. His talents were matched only by his eagerness for combat.”

As the war ground on, in 1944 Alison became a co-commander of the first Air Commando Force, which he organized as an ingenious operation to establish fortified bases behind Japanese enemy lines in Burma (Myanmar). This endeavor was to make the frontal army assault on Burma from British India far more effective.

And General Alison was by no means just an armchair strategist in carrying out this initiative; he led a force of 15 men, personally piloting a glider to an improvised landing strip on a teakwood plantation in establishing one of the Burma bases.

At the conclusion of World War II and with so many spectacular adventures behind him, Alison was all of 33 years old. What to do for an encore after such an eventful life already?

Not one to fly off into the sunset, Alison served as an assistant secretary of commerce during the administration of Harry Truman, and later participated in the Korean War. He retired from military service in 1955, beginning a second 3–year career working in the private sector for Northrop Corporation, from which he would retire as a senior vice president in 1984.

It’s been noted that many prominent aviators have lived extraordinarily long lives. During the near-century span of General Alison’s noteworthy life and career, he was honored on numerous occasions times for his record of military service, including receiving the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star.

In 1994, he was inducted into the Air Commando Hall of Fame, and in 2005 was given the same distinction by the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

These honors rightly memorialize the extraordinary life of John Alison. But there is a small anecdote about the man that neatly sums it all up. In 1940, Alison was participating in a demonstration of P-40 planes for Nationalist Chinese General Chiang Kai-Shek … who, duly imprsssed, promptly declared that he needed 100 of the aircraft for his war effort against the Japanese.

Pointing to Alison, the leader of the U.S. delegation responded to Chiang saying, “No, sir! You need 100 of those!”